Carrillo Puerto, Felipe (1874–1924)

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Carrillo Puerto, Felipe (1874–1924)

Felipe Carrillo Puerto (b. 8 November 1874; d. 3 January 1924), one of the Mexican Revolution's most radical agrarian leaders. During his short-lived governorship of Yucatán (1922–1923), Carrillo Puerto presided over what was arguably the Americas' first attempted transition to socialism. Assassinated in January 1924 by insurgent federal troops allied with powerful members of Yucatán's henequen oligarchy, he has since become one of the most enduring martyrs of Mexico's twentieth-century revolution.

Carrillo Puerto was born in Motul—the heart of Yucatán's henequen zone—the second of fourteen children of a modest mestizo retail merchant. As a young man he was a ranchero (small landholder), mule driver, petty trader, and railroad conductor during Yucatán's henequen export boom, which descendants of the original Maya fieldworkers still recall as the época de esclavitud (age of slavery). Carrillo Puerto learned the Maya vernacular as part of his daily life, and developed close ties to Yucatán's rural underclass in the process. An autodidact who read a bit of Marx and other leftist European thinkers along with the more standard fare of mainstream Mexican liberalism, Carrillo Puerto was jailed several times for his political activities against the local oligarchical machine. Following the fall of the Porfiriato in 1911, his political aspirations within the state were frustrated by his backing of the wrong Maderista politician, and he left Yucatán for Morelos in late 1914 to volunteer his services to the celebrated agrarian movement of Emiliano Zapata. Six months later, however, he was back on his native soil, determined to work with the new populist governor, General Salvador Alvarado, to bring agrarian reform to Yucatán.

Carrillo Puerto proved both too popular and too radical for the authoritarian Alvarado, who kept him on a short leash prior to departing the peninsula in 1918. Once Carrillo Puerto assumed control of Alvarado's Socialist Party of the Southwest (Partido Socialista del Sureste—PSS) later that year, the Mexican Revolution moved steadily to the left in Yucatán. Whereas Alvarado had been reluctant to let the rural masses participate in the political process, Carrillo Puerto encouraged them to accept responsibility for their political destiny. And while Alvarado had been prepared to initiate only a limited agrarian reform, under Carrillo Puerto's leadership, the pace of agrarian reform accelerated to the point that Yucatán distributed more land than any other state, save perhaps Zapata's Morelos. By the time of his death, Carrillo Puerto had made sure that virtually every one of the state's major pueblos had received at least a basic ejidal grant. His regime and life were snuffed out just as he seemed ready to initiate a more sweeping agrarian reform, one that would have expropriated the region's henequen plantations and turned them into collective farms owned and operated by the workers.

Under Carrillo Puerto the Mexican Revolution in Yucatán became a genuinely Yucatecan movement. He used locally trained cadres of agrarian agitators and activist schoolteachers, and allied with local caciques (power brokers). Moreover, Carrillo Puerto reinforced the regional character of his revolution in a variety of symbolic ways, most of which sought to wean the Maya campesino away from the institutions and passive attitudes of the old regime and to develop a sense of ethnic pride as a prelude to class consciousness. He encouraged the speaking of Maya and the teaching of Maya culture and art forms, began earnest restoration of the great archaeological sites of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, and made every effort to recall the great revolutionary tradition of protest to which the campesinos were heir.

Ultimately, Carrillo Puerto's homegrown variant of "Yucatecan socialism" proved threatening, not only to the regional oligarchy, but also to the more moderate regime then consolidating its control over the republic under the leadership of Sonoran caudillos Alvaro Obregón Salido and Plutarco Calles. When, under cover of the De La Huerta rebellion, insurgent federal troops were contracted by the henequen kings to expunge bolshevism, Mexico City abandoned Carrillo Puerto. Yucatán's socialist experiment ended tragically when Felipe Carrillo Puerto and many of his closest supporters in Mérida were hunted down and summarily executed by a firing squad on 3 January 1924. Following the defeat of the de la Huerta rebellion, the remnants of the PSS were absorbed by the new corporatist structure in Mexico City. Only the outer trappings of the Americas' first attempted socialist transition—the red shirts, the radical slogans, the formal organization of the PSS—survived its leader's untimely death.

See alsoMexico, Wars and Revolutions: Mexican Revolution .


Francisco J. Paoli Bolio and Enrique Montalvo, El socialismo olvidado de Yucatán (1977).

Gilbert M. Joseph, Revolution from Without: Yucatán, Mexico, and the United States, 1880–1924, rev. ed. (1988).

Additional Bibliography

Berzunza Pinto, Ramón. En el pórtico de la historia: Biografía de Felipe Carrillo Puerto. Campeche: Gobierno del Estado de Campeche, Instituto de Cultura de Campeche, 2001.

                                      Gilbert M. Joseph

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Carrillo Puerto, Felipe (1874–1924)

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